02 August 2012

A Land Of Water and Wheels

The first amazing thing I saw in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a waterwheel.  We were crossing an arid valley in the south, with rocky slopes all around and a harsh, mediterranean sun beating down on the road.  From inside the bus windows it seemed impossible that there could be any crops there - but the valley bottom was covered with corn and tobacco plants.
Hydropower is an amazing thing.  Any machine, essentially, can be powered by running water - and often in a much simpler way than one would imagine.  As the bus descended into the seam of the valley, where a clear river flowed in the dust, we began passing irrigation channels and pipes. Makeshift, rough things - PVC and rusted metal - they were being supplied with water from waterwheels turning creakily in the riverbed.  No pumps, no gurgle of hoses, just old wheels lifting water up and letting gravity do the rest.  It was so beautifully, elegantly simple.  I almost asked the bus driver to stop so that I could take a picture.
In another corner of the country, we visited these much older - and just as intriguing - watermills.
Though there are plenty of hydropower plants in Bosnia, most of the waterwheels one is likely to see are of the schlocky variety.  Spinning purposelessly beside restaurants or tourist centers, the wheels seem curious at first, but they're the continuation of a long tradition.  Rivers and streams are an integral part of Bosnia - the name is actually derived from the ancient word bosana, which means water.  This is a third world country and one of the poorest in Europe, but the tap water in every faucet is not only drinkable - it's delicious and stony cold.  It comes from Bosnia's greatest resource, a collection of pristine aquifers that haven't yet been tapped for mass irrigation or drained and dirtied by urbanization.  There are springs and crystalline rivers everywhere, their flows almost impervious to drought. It's no surprise that there's also a long history of using all that water to spin wheels, grind grain, pound wool and saw wood - for hundreds of years, mills have been a part of the Bosnian landscape.
The Pliva river springs from the ground whole at Pljeva, where three underground flows bubble to the surface and run together.  The water - even at midsummer - is so cool that the forest near the source has a mountain feeling, as though an alpine breeze had somehow been trapped in the trees there.  It's a magnificent, almost magical sight; the water emerges from mossy rock so abruptly that it seems like an illusion.
Nearby, old mills stand wheel-less, with water spilling unchecked through wooden flumes.  There were more picnickers and hikers around than millers when we passed through, and a few cows grazing in unfenced meadows.  Some old stone wheels lying in the weeds were the best evidence of the town's past.
In Bosanska Krupa, a connected trio of mills juts out into the clear water of the Una river.  Now more of a tourist attraction, the waterwheels here are brightly painted and rarely used.  Nicknamed "Aleja Vodenica"("Mill Alley") the wooden vestiges have become a symbol; the platforms and pilings connect town and river, anchoring history and nature together.  If nothing else, they're pretty.
None of them are operational, but the famous cluster of mills near Jajce is still one of the most interesting and unique sites in Bosnia.  A line of cabin-like buildings in the spillway between two lakes, the mills have been maintained (if not used) since Ottoman times - some estimate that they date to the 16th century.
These small structures were an important part of the medieval Bosnian economy - Ottoman farmers brought their grain to places like this for grinding, leaving ten percent as payment. Centralized mills were common in some places, but at Jajce the small, steady rivulets were perfect for individual families to construct their own.  Even today there are close to a dozen, none larger than a shack, kept up as a cultural tribute to the past.  In truth, the Jajce watermills were used as recently as the twentieth century, and there are still people in the city that remember grinding their flour there.
It's a beautiful spot, especially on a weekend evening, when Bosnian families canoe on the lakes and barbecue in the parkland around.
The most ingenious and interesting use of hydropower we've come across in Bosnia and Herzegovina was this lamb-roasting spit at Vozač restaurant, in the Vrbas River valley.  A bored waiter let us into the roasting cabin, which was - needless to say - quite hot.  The home-made wheel was fed by a hose running from the nearby spring; a clever gear mechanism kept the meat's rotation slow and methodical.
We would have stayed for lunch, but it appeared that the creature was a few hours away from being done.  Driving away, we realized that it was the first working watermill that we'd seen since the irrigation wheels in Herzegovina - and it wasn't even connected to a river.  How wonderful, that a place would cobble something together like this, even with electricity at the ready and a local crowd that didn't care how the spit was turned.  

1 comment:

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